There’s a curious line in our creed which says that, immediately following his death, Jesus “descended into hell”. What, possibly, can that mean?
Within the popular Christian mindset we have the conception that, as a consequence of original sin, the gates of heaven were closed so that, from the time of Adam and Eve until the moment of Jesus’ death, nobody could enter paradise. Only a divine act of reparation could again give human beings access to heaven and that act of reparation was Jesus’ death which “paid the debt of sin” and so opened the gates of heaven.
In this view of things, all the just who had died from the time of Adam and Eve until Jesus’ death were asleep somewhere, in a Hades of sorts. Immediately following his death, Jesus descends to that underworld and awakens these souls and then triumphantly leads them into paradise. That descent to the underworld to wake the souls of the dead and take them to heaven is what is understood as “the descent into hell”. The image of this is wonderfully captured in an ancient homily that the church now uses as one of its readings for the hour of vigils on Holy Saturday.
But that’s an image, something that captures, as might an icon, a deeper reality. It’s not a video-tape of an actual happening. How is it to be interpreted? How did Jesus descend into hell?
Let me try to explain this by combining three images:
The first is a story, a tragic one: Some years ago some family friends of mine lost a daughter to suicide. She was in her early twenties and away from home when she made her first attempt to kill herself. The family rushed to her, flew her home, surrounded her with loving solicitude, took her to doctors of ever kind, and generally tried every possible way to love and coax her out of her deadly depression. In the end, they failed. She killed herself, despite their efforts. All the loving effort and professional resources they could muster could not break through and bring her out of the private hell into which she had descended. Strong as human love can be, sometimes it stands helpless, exhausted, before a door it can’t open.
My second image is taken from John’s Gospel: After Jesus rises from the dead, he appears to the disciples who, as John describes, are huddled together in a room, in fear, with the doors locked. Jesus comes right through the locked doors, stands inside the middle of their fear, and breathes out peace. A week later, he does it again.
A third image: When I was a young boy, my mother gave me a holy card, an adaptation of a famous painting by Holman Hunt (“The Christ Who Knocks”) In the version my mother gave me, we see, behind a locked door, a man huddled and paralysed by a fear and darkness of some kind. Outside the door stands Jesus, with a lantern, knocking, ready to relieve the man of his burden. But there’s a hitch, the door only has a knob on the inside. Jesus cannot enter, unless the man first unlocks the door. There’s the implication that God cannot help unless we first let God in. Fair enough? Not exactly.
What the cross of Christ reveals is that when we are so paralysed by fear and overcome by darkness that we can no longer help ourselves, when we have reached the stage where we can no longer open the door to let light and life in, God can still come through our locked doors, stand inside our fear and paralysis, and breathe out peace. The love that is revealed in Jesus’ suffering and death, a love that is so other-centred that it can fully forgive and embrace its executioners, can precisely pass through locked doors, melt frozen hearts, penetrate the walls of fear, and descend into our private hells and, there, breathe out peace.
In the case of the young woman who committed suicide, she had reached a point where she was frozen inside of a private hell, behind doors that her family’s love and professional doctors could no longer open. They stood outside of her locked doors, like Jesus in Holman Hunt’s painting, knocking, begging for a response that she could no longer give. I have no doubt though that when she awoke on the other side she found Christ standing inside her fear and darkness, breathing out peace.
The doctrine of the “descent into hell” is singularly the most consoling of all doctrines, in any religion. As that ancient homily on Holy Saturday so wonderfully puts it, the love that Christ reveals in the cross is so strong that it can descend into any hell we can create, thaw out our frozen souls, and lead us into the light and peace of paradise, despite our fears and weaknesses. The cross of Christ does not stand helpless before a locked door.